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Depth, but on what footing?

The Way of the World; A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism; Ron Suskind; Harper: 416 pp., $27.95

August 09, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

How an administration as fixated on loyalty and conformity as this one ever came to produce so unending a series of defectors eager to tell all to anyone who will listen is a topic that probably will keep psycho-historically inclined scholars of the presidency fully employed well into the decade after next. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former national affairs writer for the Wall Street Journal, is one of the enterprising journalists who have made the most of this inexplicable confessional impulse.

Suskind has already contributed two important volumes to the large library of books exploring the inner workings of President George W. Bush's secrecy-obsessed White House. In "The Price of Loyalty" he brought to light the administration's pathological intolerance of loyal internal dissent and even ordinary differences of opinion. It was an account that gained authority from the cooperation of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who -- early on -- was purged from the Cabinet for expressions of excessive independence. Suskind's "The One Percent Doctrine" delineated the origins and perilous effect of Vice President Dick Cheney's extraordinary influence over the White House's approach to national security and the war on terror. As this reviewer wrote at the time, Suskind's altogether convincing treatment of issues was built on diligently meticulous reporting and clear sourcing of key points.

A reader comes, therefore, to "The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" with high expectations. One is likely to get up, however, feeling frustrated, confused and in need of further reassurance from the author as to the substance of some of the book's most serious allegations.

Truth to tell, "The Way of the World" is structurally a mess. One suspects that Suskind, mindful that the Bush/Cheney administration is staggering to inglorious conclusion, intended this book to look to the future as well as back to the recent past -- to suggest, in some fashion, a way forward. It's inarguably a worthwhile goal, as well as a canny authorial strategy to lengthen the book's shelf life, if it comes off.

It does not.

You can sense the beginnings of the problem in the faux poetics of the title and in the grandiloquence of the utterly baffling subtitle: Whose truth? Whose hope -- and for what? "Age of Extremism" is a mildly clever gloss on Auden's pointed "The Age of Anxiety," but whose extremism? Is it Bush and Cheney's or Al Qaeda's -- or, perhaps, both?

There's not much help to be had from the text. Suskind has chosen to follow a number of individuals who apparently are meant to put a human face on the war on terror. These individual stories are told in the present tense, apparently for the sake of stylistic immediacy. Among the subjects are a rather unpleasant Afghan high school student sent to study in Colorado and his naive American host family, as well as a young Pakistani immigrant working out questions of modernity and faith in the shadow of Washington, D.C.'s bars and strip clubs. There's a civil rights lawyer who assumes the defense of an innocent and badly abused Guantanamo detainee. (There surely is an important book yet to be written about the heroism of the civil rights and, particularly, military lawyers who have sacrificed themselves and their careers in Pauline devotion to the cause of securing basic due process for the inmates of the Bush/Cheney gulag.)

The author seems to have intended that the layering of these personal stories would add resonance and depth to a new set of allegations concerning the administration's dysfunction and, possibly, illegal misconduct. Fair enough, but what is one to make of references to "vast heartbeat migrations" or to people who "bend toward the sunlight like all living things"? It's hard to know what to do with an assertion that this book's story is one "about common people coming to the shores of a vast, challenging place, discovering their truest potential and re-creating, over and over, a new world." Yes, of course.

Worse, what are readers supposed to do with an endless italic introduction to one chapter that purports to be a reconstruction of the 11th century Muslim philosopher-physician Avicenna buying his first copy of Aristotle from a bookseller in the bazaar of Bukhara? We're meant to hear not only the slap of his sandals, but also learn precisely how much he paid. (If we're going into that sort of detail, why use the Latinate Avicenna instead of his real name, Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina?)

One begins to understand why the publicity operatives at HarperCollins were so eager to get Suskind onto the interview-show circuit before putting copies of "The Way of the World" into reviewers' hands. So far, that's kept the focus on the book's new set of revelations about the administration's conduct of the war on terror and against Iraq. Even there, though, unexpected questions arise.

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